Sunday Sermon for August 25, 2013, the Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Readings: Is 66:18-21; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk 13:22-30
In the Gospel reading today our Lord is asked if many will be saved. He answers in a rather vague manner by saying that we are to try to enter through the narrow gate. This suggests that it is certainly not easy to get into Heaven. In another place He tells us that the way that leads to life is rough and narrow and few they are who are on it. The implication here is pretty clear that those on the road to Heaven are not very many.
This question has become a topic of considerable debate recently due to a book that bears the title of the question from the Gospel. The book looks at Scripture, the teachings of the Church (Councils, Popes) and the Saints to conclude that the percentage of people going to Heaven are few by comparison to those going the other direction.
This has been met with a large and unexpected opposition. Unexpected due to those who are opposing the position. People who would normally be considered trustworthy and orthodox are suggesting that in fact the majority, even the vast majority, goes to heaven while very few find themselves in Hell for eternity. The position of these theologians is based on the truth of the infinite mercy of God.
God is, indeed, merciful, but we have to open our hearts to receive His mercy. It is not enough to say that because God is merciful, everything will be forgiven or ignored. God does forgive, but unless we repent, we cannot be reconciled with Him. In the face of this notion of universal, or nearly universal salvation, I would have to ask why anyone would try to enter through the narrow way if the road that leads to heaven is wide and smooth with many on it.
St. Paul, in the second reading, speaks of the discipline imposed upon us by God Who, in disciplining us, is treating us as His own children. St. Paul acknowledges that when discipline is meted out it is not a cause for joy. So why would we want to endure God’s discipline if we are all but guaranteed a spot in Heaven? We could say that discipline promotes virtue, so it is good to accept it in order to grow. But what incentive is there to grow in holiness if that is really not necessary?
In the first reading God tells us through Isaiah that He has come to gather the nations to Himself. He speaks of how these pagans will be considered clean and some, unthinkable to the Jewish mindset, will be priests and Levites for the Lord. If everyone is going to Heaven, why evangelize the nations? If these people were already saved, why is the Lord talking about gathering them to Himself?
The fact is, these people were not part of the people of God, let alone His children. They needed to be brought to the Lord. Only in this way could people of every nation, language, race and tongue be part of the Communion of Saints, the innumerable number of people seen by St. John. You might think that this is a contradiction of what I had been upholding earlier. There will be many people in Heaven. In the Gospel our Lord speaks of people from east and west, north and south. However, I think that this number will be few by comparison to the whole number of people God has created since time began.
I think that we would all agree that if we said that a ratio of 1 to 7 would be saved, this would be few, relatively speaking. I use this number because there are seven billion people alive on the planet today. If one in seven is saved, this still adds up to a billion people. We do not know the ratio, but if we look from the beginning of creation until now, a one in twenty ratio would still be over a billion. Compared to those who went the wrong way, this would be only a few.
I hope the ratio is much smaller that what I have just mentioned, but I think it is only wise to listen to the voice of the Lord and strive to enter through the narrow gate. He says that many will try to enter, but will not be strong enough. This means that we cannot sit back and think that Heaven is a guarantee or that we do not have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.
God wants everyone in Heaven, but most people are not willing to endure the discipline necessary to enter through the narrow way. Pray and do not rely on your own strength; only by the grace provided by God will we have the strength to remain steadfast.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.